Two City Walks and a Big Ask: It’s Time

How two walks in the city connect Gene Duvernoy to nature—and reinforce his hope for the future of this place. Duvernoy is president of Forterra.

Forterra responds to challenges like climate change and the economic vitality of our rural towns
Gene Duvernoy on his walk to work in Seattle’s Capitol Hill.

We walked the Queensboro Bridge about the same time Simon and Garfunkel were bringing it boomer generation fame. This venerable edifice already had a pedigree from my father’s day, with references in The Great Gatsby to scenes in the 1936 movie My Man Godfrey. Still, it was the ‘70s and a couple of us then twentysomethings ventured on to this 59th Street bridge “looking for fun and feelin’ groovy.”

Our predawn, post spring crossing followed an early concert of Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks at a small Greenwich Village venue, Max’s Kansas City, and a late show of Billy Joel, Bonnie Raitt and the Temptations at The Bitter End. The Temps were the headline and Billy and Bonnie unknowns. It was a long time ago.

Walking from the Village to the Upper Eastside, we made a game of finding leaves or other signs of nature along the way. At last we scored some points while crossing the bridge, spotting a budding tree limb floating down the East River. Transported by water from the Hudson watershed, was it broken off a tree in the Adirondack Park during a heavy spring snow? In one of the world’s great cities, nature was not the headline, nor the first act, not even a street barker—until Sandy reminds us a few decades later that it will step onto the main stage whenever it cares to.


Northbound commuter traffic streams past downtown Seattle on I-5 as the setting sun casts a pink glow on Mount Rainier.
Photo by Glenn Nelson

At a very different time of day and in a city on the opposite coast, I cross another bridge over another river, of sorts. An early morning March walk from Capitol Hill to Forterra’s downtown Seattle office, I use the Madison Street I-5 overpass, above an urban river or at least an urban flow. In the foreground, drab, dirty greys; northbound lanes stalled-out with a frozen-solid stream of head lights.  Mid-ground, a thick fog bank totally shrouds Beacon Hill, sinisterly dark at bottom and benignly lighter on top.  All is muted and THEN—and I mean an ever-loving THEN—the last 4,000 feet of glacier-wrapped Tahoma looms over all, heedless of the puny human settlement below. Its fall-to-your-knees brightness matched by a brilliant blue sky with gold tinged light from the east. It sits there as if biding time.

Ponder these two walks and connect the dots. We pretend nature is at the outer reaches of our cities and towns, on the periphery and in miniature like a tree limb floating the East River or remote and grand, like Mount Rainier. It’s all around us—but it doesn’t need us. We need it. And if we want to preserve it, we have to live sustainably, or if you prefer, resiliently.

And how do we do this?

The good news is the answers are much the same whether we’re concerned with the health and cohesiveness of our communities or the health and the integrity of God’s green Earth.

Doubt me? As a mind experiment, consider housing and transit. Fairness calls for cities and towns with quality housing at all price points−so the teacher, the waiter or the shoe repairer isn’t spending 3 hours commuting.

Fairness also calls for ample transit so that those of us who can’t afford cars−or choose not to own one—are not cast to the side. From the perspective of the natural world, the more compact and more inclusive we build our cities, the less sprawl and the greater expanse for our natural ecosystems to provide clean air and water undisturbed. And from the perspective of the teacher, affordable and walkable communities served by transit add to our quality of life.

My walk to work then—even when the mountain is just fable behind thick cloud cover—is no longer just a metaphor for a rash belief nature is on the sideline, but also a positive slice of what I hope for from our community. And it’s what I heard over the last six months in my conversations at more than 30 dinner tables and town halls across our region, from Shelton to Tacoma to Seattle to Ellensburg when I asked, “What is it that you want from your communities?”

We all want the same basic things: Communities that hang together where you can get a job, find a home, see your kids educated and live a life that includes a stroll to the park with your spouse or to a Little League game with your child. Communities where everyone is welcome, where there is deep social connectedness and where there are transit options that spare us from a teeth grinding commute.

We need to seriously change the way we think.

But that’s only a start—it’s time to do more. We also need to seriously respond to the challenges that face us, from global crises like climate change to local challenges like the economic vitality of our rural towns. And we need to stop dwelling about what was. Nostalgia is a precious waste of effort. We need to be informed by the past, not constricted by it.

So here’s my big ask of us all: Concede it’s time we reduce the “footprint” of our messy, land consuming existence. We need to hold our developers accountable, demand they build structures that are gracious as well as livable. We need leaders thinking about what becomes of this region over the next 100 years—not worrying about what becomes of them in the next election. And all of us—we all need to commit to making thoughtful choices.

In this story, writer Bruce Barcott makes a point about the kind of action we need to take in our wildlands. It’s the same with our communities. We no longer can pretend to be passive observers or casual inhabitants. We must be forward-looking curators of place. We need to be committed enough to future generations to invest in this place right now. It’s time.

Despite all we have accomplished together since 2005, the world is changing quickly and intensely, raising the stakes and compressing our time to act.

Let’s work together and curate the kind of community where our children will say they were Born at the Right Time.  And there, I’m ending where I began, with another Paul Simon song.

  • Glenn Nelson

    Glenn Nelson is a journalist, photographer and Web entrepreneur in Seattle who is currently developing The Trail Posse to encourage diversity in the outdoors.